A new Australian startup accelerator wants to change the image of tech entrepreneur as a bloke in sneakers and hoodie
It was widely reported last year that in Australia there were more men named Peter leading ASX 200 companies than there were women of any name. Unfortunately this is also true at the other end of the pipeline, in the startup space – where the high-impact companies of the future are being created. Women make up between 14% and 24% of founders, depending on which report you read. Among funded startups – the ones attracting venture capital – the figures are at their worst, with women representing less than 5%. Men outnumber women dramatically throughout the world of startups, innovation and business leadership.It would be an easy cop-out to say this is because “girls don’t get tech”. But the truth is, it’s more like “tech doesn’t get girls” – or at least, that is the message being sent by a sector that is most commonly represented by blokes in hoodies, t-shirts and sneakers. The need to diversify this image is compelling.Right now, our startup ecosystem is undergoing major growth as both government and the corporate sector have recognised the potential (and need) to build an innovation–led, tech–enabled economy equipped for the disruption of automation and a globalised workforce. While it all sounds exciting, based on the current statistics this is an enormous threat to gender equality. With females making up such a tiny portion of the tech and startup sectors, we risk building a new economy that leaves women behind, again.A report released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, entitled Women’s Work, Men’s Work, found that women are still much more likely to hold CEO or key management personnel roles – and earn more money – in female-dominated industries (34% and 46% respectively) than male-dominated industries (6% and 18%).So what will happen to gender equality if the industries that grow out of this startup ecosystem are the ones where women barely exist?The signs are not good for 50.4% of the population. What’s more, it’s a pretty dire outlook for our entire economy as international evidenceconsistently shows companies led by women and embracing diversity in leadership achieve better results in terms of innovation and creativity, and quite simply, better bottom lines.In fact, female-led companies drive three times the returns of companies predominantly led by men. What’s more, female CEOs are leading the push for inclusive leadership, creating companies where all staff can thrive and drive innovation.To quote the WGEA director, Libby Lyons, in the Women’s work, Men’s work report: “If we are serious about being an innovation nation, we need to start improving gender diversity in industries that will be growth areas in the years to come.”Investing in greater Stem education for girls is a vital step. But we can’t sit and wait for that investment to bear fruit – nor can we rely on education alone. We need to boost women’s leadership right now by putting a spotlight on those who are smashing through the coded ceiling, and inspiring the next wave of female entrepreneurs to get their ideas off the ground, backing them with the funding and tech support required to get started.
There’s a growing movement of individuals and organisations committed to seeing this change occur. From grass-roots organisations such as Girls in Tech, Tech Girls are Superheroes and Girl Geek Academy seeking to inspire and engage women and girls in tech, and hackathons such as the upcoming LadyProblems, and the recent SheHacks and Female Founders Hackathon at Fishburners providing a launch pad for women entrepreneurs; to programs such as Springboard Enterprises and Scale Investors helping female founders become investment-ready, and meet-ups designed to bring women to the VC table – the effort for equality is building.At my own organisation at BlueChilli, we recognise the need to take serious action to bring more women into our startup accelerator programs. It’s not enough to just put a sign on the door reading “women welcome”. That’s why we have launched SheStarts, a national program and campaign to change the face of the startup economy. Through a national talent search, we will find, fund and accelerate 10 new female-led startups with each founder receiving $100,000 in pre-seed capital and a place in our accelerator program, backed by corporate and higher education partners. The journeys of the female entrepreneurs will be captured in a documentary web series, hopefully inspiring millions of other women and girls to get started. Our goal is to show Australian women that anyone can become a tech startup founder with the potential to create the high-impact, game-changing businesses of the future.The beauty of tech startups is they are not “one industry”; they are creating innovations for all industries. What’s more, you don’t have to be able to code to start a tech company. Tech is simply the vehicle – what you need are the right ideas, the right partners and the ambition to solve big problems.Engaging more women in startups will create a pipeline of future female CEOs, setting Australia up for a stronger future. As this part of our economy is yet to boom, we have the opportunity to get it right early on, to build a sector that drives diversity and builds women’s leadership across multiple industries.
With a concerted collective effort we can create an inclusive, innovative economy that takes gender equality forwards, not backwards.